As a child and family therapist I have been assisting parents in having difficult conversations with their children on a variety of topics. As a parent I have had to have these same conversations with my own children. As a result, I have some practical advice on how to have those conversations and why it is important to lead your children though this difficult terrain.
There are a couple of important points I would like to make before we get into the details of how to have these conversations. The first is that honesty really is the best policy. Don’t candy-coat things in your conversations with your children. Keep things age appropriate — but keep it real!
Your children will respect you more if you are honest and authentic with them. This will set the template for a strong relationship with your children throughout your life. Secondly, difficult conversations can actually bring us together and build intimacy. These conversations can be the vehicle to a closer and deeper relationship with your children, and help them grow to be good citizens of this world.
Although you do not have handle these tough conversations perfectly, it is good to be prepared and know the important points you want to make.
Conversation 1. Talking to your kids about drugs and alcohol
Be honest with your children about drugs. Don’t make this a “drugs are bad” conversation, as that just does not work. Do not paint drugs as evil as this can make the allure even greater during a rebellious adolescence.
Most young people encounter drugs along the way, and the reality is that they will need to make decisions in regards to alcohol and drugs. Let them know if is OK to be curious about drugs and alcohol — but that you know they have the ability to make good and thoughtful decisions. Set that bar high, and they are more likely to rise to it.
Let them know that you understand that they may make mistakes as it is part of growing up — and that you will always help them no matter what. You can still be clear on your expectations, but you do not want to shut this topic down and leave your child feeling misunderstood and judged — they are much more susceptible to substance use and abuse if they feel disconnected from their parents.
Coach your children on how to deal with peers. I encouraged my children to not judge others for their alcohol and drug experimentation. If people feel judged by you they will either pressure you to join them (in their substance use) or turn you into the enemy and potentially bully you.
Educate them about their brain — let them know that drugs and alcohol can adversely affect the developing brain, and their brain need to grow in the best soil possible. I always tell children and teens that there is a scientific reason for a drinking age, and that there is a reason that drug use is restricted to medical issues. Try to make this part of the conversation informational, rather than a lecture or something that sounds personal and judgmental.
Conversation 2. Talking to your kids about sex
People often fear that the sex conversation will be awkward, but it does not have to be this way as it is natural and part of human life. In fact it is the basis of human life. The conversation is only awkward when the parents are anxious about talking about it. Young people these days are more at ease with this conversation, and are not always sure why adults are so uncomfortable with this topic.
Begin talking with your children when they are young. It is part of educating them about their health and self-care. It is important for them to understand their bodies, and providing information to children leads to good sexual health and higher self-esteem. Be natural and informative as you educate them about body science. Children are amazingly scientific and pragmatic about sex when they are young, so this is the best time to start these conversations. Use the correct anatomical words. Educating children about sex actually keeps your children safer.
As children get older talk more about the emotional and societal issues around sex and sexuality. Have ongoing conversations. Let them know it is OK to be curious, but that we also want to make sure we are respectful to ourselves and others. Discuss consent and boundaries.
Conversation 3. Talking to your kids about bullies
Unfortunately the reality is that all of us have experienced bullying at some point in our lives — so your children will need you to prepare them on how to deal with bullies and difficult people.
The best defense against bullying is to have a solid anchor at home. If they know they can come home to you, and be cared for when they feel vulnerable, you will give them the “safe place to fall” in the world. This develops trust between parents and children, and this will assist them in problem solving.
Let them know that bullies are trying to grab power, and they do not deserve to play a central role in our lives. Bullies are insecure themselves as they would never need to try to make someone feel bad if they felt good. You will need to coach them to not show their vulnerability to the bullies (as that feeds the fire) and to identify the people that are safe and who can assist them. It is OK to ask for help and assistance, and to stand up against what we feel is wrong. Help them feel empowered, so that no bully can rob them of that!